John Hutchinson (1944-2021)

The likes of Tony Visconti will have most probably omitted any mention of me in their books, because I will have been to them (just as they were to me) a peripheral character in their David Bowie stories. 

John Hutchinson, Bowie & Hutch

Greil Marcus once called John Lennon “the reality principle” of the Beatles: the quadrant of the Beatles who reminded you that life goes on elsewhere, the one who questioned what the group was for, who said why it had to be abandoned (though I’ve long thought this better applied to George Harrison). John “Hutch” Hutchinson, who died a few days past, was something like this for his friend David Bowie. 

To his once-partner, Hutch was normality, steadiness, humility, domesticity. Hutch as the control to Bowie’s variable. The Ground Control, as it turned out—“Space Oddity” was originally a duet in which Hutch is left on earth, calling out into the void, fearing that his astronaut counterpart has gone lost.

A few years Bowie’s elder, Hutchinson had a similar trajectory as Bowie in the early-to-mid Sixties: growing up in an un-hip English town (Scarborough), forming an R&B band with an American name (The Tennesseans, of whom Hutch wrote “played most of the Beatles’ cover repertoire before we heard the Beatles”), spending the Beatlemania years scratching out a performing life, looking for the big break. In 1965, Hutchinson moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, where he got notice simply for being the only English rock guitarist in the city.

In January 1966, having turned up at the Marquee Club to ask if anyone needed a guitarist, Hutchinson auditioned a few days later there for David Bowie’s new band, The Buzz. Hutchinson played some Bo Diddley riffs and got the job. In his memoir, he noted that the main requirements for The Buzz were that “the musician could not be too good-looking or trendy, and he must be prepared to adopt a nickname.” Thus, “Hutch.”

The Buzz set the parameters of Hutch’s time with Bowie. Hutch as the genial journeyman guitarist who was able to make Bowie’s odd songs work on stage (“they had unusual shapes, nothing like the current Top 20 stuff”—“Good Morning Girl” came about when Bowie scatted to a jazz riff Hutch was playing); Bowie as the driven, occasionally moody artiste, absorbing every speck of music that he came across.

Married and with a pregnant wife, tired of not getting paid, and wary of Bowie’s new manager, Ken Pitt, who was positioning Bowie as a pure solo act, Hutchinson left The Buzz in June 1966 to get a proper job, soon moving to Montreal for a year or so. In 1969, he’d do the same—leaving Bowie again to go back to the real world. Hutch had responsibilities and obligations. Rock and roll was a circus that he’d work for a few summers, but at some point it was time to go home. 

Hutch’s departures, Hutch’s time in normie exile, became one of Bowie’s shadow-mirror lives. What if he’d given up, too? Gotten married, gotten a proper job in Beckenham, turned music into a hobby. Driving through Brixton with Tin Machine in 1991, Bowie wept, said that he still wondered sometimes how all of it happened, that he should have been an accountant or something.

Hutchinson was most of value to Bowie upon his return from Canada, having forsaken R&B for contemporary folk: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell. In 1968, Bowie stood at one of his crossroads. His first, gloriously weird solo album had flopped; he had no record deal, and Ken Pitt was edging him towards cabaret, stage musicals and film roles. Hutch gave him a new grounding, a fresh backdrop. Hutch was a folkie; now Bowie would be a folkie. 

At first, it was indulgent: Feathers (nee Turquoise), a “mixed media” acoustic trio with Hermione Farthingale that’s commemorated by the hippie doodle “Ching-a-Ling,” a song that Donovan would’ve considered too fey. It drove Ken Pitt up a wall, Bowie frittering away his talent on this stuff, which already sounded dated in its first performances.

But when Bowie and Hermione broke up, leading to the “Bowie and Hutch” acoustic duo of early 1969, something caught fire. Bowie needed to be in a double act at the time, with Hutch as his straight man on stage, his friend and harmonizer. The obvious template was Simon and Garfunkel, with the twist that in this incarnation, “Garfunkel,” the mushroom-haired, extravagantly-voiced half of the group, would be the dominant creative force, while Hutch’s “Simon” would play the intricate guitar chords and mostly stay out of his way.

Bowie and Hutch’s 1969 demos, on which Hutchinson sang lead on Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” and Roger Bunn’s “Life is a Circus,” come off mostly as David Bowie With Accompaniment. Hutchinson stays in Bowie’s shadow; Bowie, making leaps as a composer, sounds ready to leave Hutch behind. But you can hear their friendship in their harmonies and inside jokes. Their time together established what would be Bowie’s standard working relationship: Bowie as director and scenarist; Hutch as facilitator, the one who drafted the storyboards and filled in details. Hutch as the 1.0 version of Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Reeves Gabrels, Donny McCaslin.

Their epilogue was marvelous. Hutchinson returned yet again to play rhythm guitar in the Spiders from Mars’ 1973 tour. What must they have made of each other then! Hutch watching his once-Mod frontman stalking around, with a flame-colored mullet and dressed in Japanese extraterrestrial outfits; Bowie glancing upstage to see good old reliable Hutch standing there, memento of the hungry years. 

They’d stay in contact until the end, exchanging the occasional email. In his humble way, Hutchinson wrote in his memoir he “had to remember not to pester David, mind you, as we are many years and many miles apart now and there are constraints that lifestyle and fame impose upon old friends of stars like David Bowie.” No more effacing now. Raise a glass to Hutch, a star in his own right.

15 Responses to John Hutchinson (1944-2021)

  1. Anonymous says:

    great piece Chris.. RIP Hutch

  2. Greg Evans says:

    what a lovely tribute

  3. Christine says:

    Thank you for that touching tribute, full of humanity. Your writing often brings a tear to my eye, but in a good way

  4. Lynda Fisher says:

    Just what I didn’t know I needed this morning, Thank you Chris, Not sure anyone let’s emotion and vulnerability shine through beautifully written journalism like you do.
    “The Ground Control, as it turned out…” RIP, Hutch.

  5. KEV HILL says:

    I hope this reaches you Chris.

    I just wanted to say what a lovely eulogy to Hutch. Good on ya!

    Stay safe – Kev 😊

  6. Cat Gareth says:

    Can we also credit Hutch with the fact that Bowie looks more like a “normal” person in these photographs than in any others I’ve seen?

  7. Paul Roche says:

    So sad to hear, they did do good things together. Hutch was a lovely Man, Rest in Peace John x

  8. I met Hutch some years ago in the oil and gas industry, I had a somewhat similar background to him but as a banjo and guitar player in the UK’s first country music band. I left the band because I didn’t have enough hours in the day to do both jobs.
    We used to reminisce over our past experiences in the music world and the laughs we used to have.
    We kept in touch over the years and I was so saddened to hear of his passing.
    RIP John.
    Geoff Brown, The Alabama Hayriders, still playing occasionally in Alabama Express.

  9. Dixie Farthing says:

    I’m so moved by your tribute. I believe to this very day that Bowie never found a vocal partner who matched him as perfectly as Hutch did. Listening to their demos, their voices are ethereal, an otherworldly complement. Simon and Garfunkel is exactly the right comparison. S&G took care to synch their voices in every detail; I don’t think Bowie and Hutch were this methodical, they just occupied the same vocal spaces in a way that was uncanny. I am so grateful Bowie had Hutch as a friend and perfect musical partner.

  10. Stolen Guitar says:

    Lovely words, Chris.

    A very nice tribute to John, and a reminder how, though fame and fortune and everything that goes with it does separate the mere mortal from the stars, we’re all of us subject to mortality, and the same beginnings.

  11. BenJ says:

    Beautiful piece. RIP John Hutchinson.

  12. Anonymous says:

    This is beautiful. I love to know they kept in touch til the end. RIP John Hutchinson.

    • Stephrn Pate says:

      Im so glad to have found this entire page, forum whatever it is… Thank you for imparting your insight. Fantastical

  13. Vicente Veras says:

    I’ve just been knowing It after a long time.

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